The LeBron Effect on the Economy of the City He Plays For

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Broadimage/Shutterstock (12211008br)LeBron James'Space Jam: A New Legacy' film premiere, Arrivals, Los Angeles, California, USA - 12 Jul 2021.
Broadimage/Shutterstock / Broadimage/Shutterstock

A “Space Jam” sequel has been 25 years in the making since Michael Jordan saved the Looney Tunes from certain destruction in the original, which came out in 1996. Now in 2021, fans are waiting for “Space Jam: A New Legacy” to hit theaters and HBO Max on July 16. But this time, a different No. 23 will be the biggest star in the cast — at least the human portion of the cast.

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It’s yet to be seen if LeBron James will succeed in crossing over to Hollywood, but even if he doesn’t make it as a movie star, don’t worry — he won’t be hurting for money. 

The Lakers paid James just shy of $40 million for 2020-21, and he’s earned more than $346 million over the course of his 18-season career so far. Even so, in terms of dollars and cents, King James gives much more to Los Angeles than Los Angeles gives to him — and it’s been that way with every city he’s played in since he entered the league in 2003.

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Wherever LeBron James goes, dollar signs follow, and the cities that he graces with his presence are all but guaranteed two things: championships and money.   

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When the King Comes to Town, Suddenly Everyone Needs a Place To Eat and Drink

The Cavs drafted LeBron James in 2003 and he stayed in Cleveland until 2010 when he left for Miami. He played four seasons with the Heat and then returned to Cleveland, where he stayed until 2018 before moving to his current home in Los Angeles.

With each and every relocation, the power of King James was evident in the fortunes of the local service industry. 

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In 2017, the year before LeBron left Cleveland for the second time, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) conducted a report of the 17-time All-Star’s impact on the local economy.

The report concluded: “We find that Mr. James has a statistically and economically significant positive effect on both the number of restaurants and other eating and drinking establishments near the stadium where he is based, and on aggregate employment at those establishments.”

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The study found that the arrival of Lebron James caused a direct, undeniable and dramatic impact on the local service industry:

  • Within one mile of the stadium where LeBron plays, the number of bars and restaurants grew by 13%. 
  • The number of employees working at bars and restaurants within one mile grew by 23.5%. 
  • His impact was most significant in the stadium’s immediate vicinity, but the economic ripple effects were felt up to seven miles away. 

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When LeBron Was a Cav, Cleveland’s Stadium Spots Thrived

The number of stadium-adjacent bars and restaurants climbed steadily during LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland, all the way up to over 190 in 2009. The next year, when he left for Miami, it dropped to around 181. Then to about 176 in 2011, then to roughly 165 in 2012. 

There were still around 165 establishments in 2014 when James made his triumphant return to Cleveland. The next year, over 210 bars and restaurants were there to mop up the stadium overflow. 

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Ditto for Miami

Just as Cleveland’s post-LeBron slump was kicking in, the bars and restaurants around American Airlines Arena in Miami were enjoying the perks of his arrival. There were about 160 such establishments around the stadium in 2010 when LeBron arrived. Just as it had in Cleveland, that number ticked up and up every year until topping out above 250 in 2014, the year LeBron left. When he did, the number of eateries immediately dropped back off the following year.

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It’s Not Just Bars and Restaurants — LeBron Is an Industry

In 2018, one year after the AEI study was released, LeBron left Cleveland once again. This time, he was off to sell Lakers jerseys. Legal document site FormSwift conducted a study that estimated that when King James went to Los Angeles, he would bring 3,000 jobs and $29 million in state tax revenue with him for a total five-year economic impact of $396 million.

While in Cleveland, James brought $200 million in spending to the downtown district, according to a 2010 report from Cleveland.com. In 2015, Cleveland.com reported that downtown businesses expected to lose a combined $48 million when LeBron moved out West.

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There are also ripple effects beyond just LeBron’s star power. His presence on the court — or lack thereof — can have a direct impact on local cash registers. Just by the Cavs failing to play in at least 10 home postseason games without their star, the region might have missed out on $150 million.

The greatest basketball player of his era and perhaps of all time, LeBron James generously shares his personal wealth-generation machine with every city he plays for — and he does it for a bargain-basement annual fee of less than $40 million. So think about that the next time you hear someone crabbing about overpaid athletes like LeBron James earning millions of bucks “just to play a game.”

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Last updated: July 15, 2021

About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.

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